With the current collective bargaining agreement negotiated by MLB and the MLB Player’s Association in 2016 set to expire on December 1, one of the largest and most discussed changes that might be coming to the game is the introduction of the designated hitter (DH) to the National League. The league introduced the universal DH during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to divided fan opinion, but the rule change did have the intended effect of evening out the run-scoring discrepancy between the AL and NL. Although many players voiced their support for the universal DH, talks to include it failed in 2021, as the MLB wanted expanded playoffs in exchange for the universal DH.
The introduction of the universal DH seems much more likely now, however, than last year, and NL teams, including the Nationals, must already be thinking about who they might slot into the newly-freed lineup spot. Below, I discuss a few internal options for the Nats’ potential new DH spot, based mostly on pinch-hitting statistics from the 2021 season.
The Nationals called up LF Hernández after they traded Kyle Schwarber at the July deadline, and he’s been with the team consistently since then. As he’s still a pre-arbitration player, he’s got five years of service time left on the clock and has shown that he can hit well: in 264 ABs, he slashed .273/.329/.413. While it’s likely that the Nats will look to acquire a LF in the off-season (since Hernández and Andrew Stevenson don’t look to be long-term solutions: Hernández is 33-years-old and Stevenson, although younger, is not a stellar fielder), Hernández may stick around as a DH and has some decent PH numbers to prove his worth. In 50 PH AB, he had 13 hits, 1 home run, and 5 RBI, for a PH BA of .260. If the Nats are able to get a solid LF for 2022 (which is not a given, as they have various other, more pressing needs—such as bullpen and 3B needs—to address first), expect to see Hernández getting his shot at the DH slot.
The 2021 season may very well have been Zim’s last, what with the beautiful ovation he received when he was pulled from 1B in the eighth during the last game of the season on October 3. Although he has steadfastly denied rumors of his retirement, saying that he intends to decide in the off-season whether he wants to play again next year, the salute was excellent closure for his over fifteen years in DC. However, as Rizzo has already said that Zimmerman has a place on the Nats as long as he’s around, he may decide to come back and would most easily fit in the new DH role. Zimmerman mostly pinch-hit this season, as Josh Bell was the starting 1B, but in 255 regular ABs, he slashed .243/.286/.339. In his pinch-hitting appearances, in 56 ABs, he had 12 hits, 2 home runs, and 6 RBI for a BA of .214. He was used in higher stakes situations than Hernández was (Zimmerman’s pinch hitting had a PH Leverage Index, or PHlev, of 1.46 compared to Hernández’s 1.19, in which above one means higher than average pressure and below one means lower than average pressure), which may account for the lower BA. But if Zimmerman wants a job with the Nationals next year, he’s got it, and it’ll most likely be as DH.
In my opinion, Stevenson had the most memorable, flashy moments of the second half. Who can forget the Friday, September 3 game, when Stevenson, pinch-running for Zimmerman, touched home at the bottom of the ninth to tie the game on an Adams RBI double, colliding with Mets catcher Chance Sisco in a tackle more reminiscent of football than baseball? Or the literal next day, the first game of a doubleheader, when he hit a two-run HR in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game at 9-9 and force extra innings, in a game the Nats were at one point losing 9-0?
Stevenson has been fairly average when in the lineup, slashing .229/.294/.339 in 192 ABs, and he is not an elite defender. But in PH instances, he’s got the best numbers out of everyone on the list: in 47 PH AB, he’s had 15 hits, 2 home runs, and 4 RBIs, for a BA of .319. At 27-years-old, he’s also one of the younger players on this list and could grow into the DH role with time, especially if he shares it with an older player first.
Riley Adams has been chronically underused, and I can’t help but feel bad for him. He’s been electric nearly every time he’s been used in a game, and with good reason: in 71 AB since he joined the Nationals as the returning piece for Brad Hand, he has slashed .268/.422/.465. Despite his productivity, which in any other position would have earned him more playing opportunities, he’s been second-string to Keibert Ruiz, and it’s a shame that he’s been languishing on the bench rather than given the space to develop further (he’s only 25-years-old). Slotting Adams in as the DH from time-to-time would give him the opportunity to build on his existing skill while keeping Ruiz in the lineup as the regular catcher. Admittedly, Adams’ PH numbers aren’t great: in 8 PH AB for the Nats, he has a BA of 0, and in 4 PH AB for the Blue Jays, he also has a BA of 0. But that may be a function more of his total lack of playing time and the PHlev of the situations he was used in for the Nats, at 2.07, the highest of any player on this list. If there’s a DH in the NL next year, the Nats would do well to give Adams a few more ABs there to see what he can do, because I don’t think we’ve gotten the full Riley Adams experience yet.
Alright, hear me out. Fan opinion on Parra is wildly divided, and understandably so: a perpetual crowd favorite in 2019 and the life of the clubhouse, he returned in 2021 to both fanfare and confusion. He is far older than most of the other players at 34-years-old, he is not an excellent fielder or hitter, and Baby Shark seems just a little overplayed now, anyways. But, if he does return to the Nationals (and he has indicated that he would like to return), it would be most likely in a DH role in some games. In 97 ABs this season, he slashed .237/.292/.351, which is… not great, but not terrible. In 25 PH ABs, he had 6 hits and 1 RBI, for a BA of .240. Which is… still not great, but serviceable should the Nationals need a backup. There are stronger contenders on this list for the DH role that the Nats should give serious consideration to, but should they decide that they value the energy he brings to the clubhouse and keep him on as a bench player, I would not be surprised if they slotted him into the DH role every once in a while. I’m not necessarily advocating for this, but it’s a strong possibility if they do keep him on the roster.